CHICAGO -- At some point, no matter how much basketball is said to be a team game, those with aspirations have to be able to put the ball in the hands of their very best player and expect that he can outduel, on most nights, anybody in the league even perennial All-Stars and Olympians, even veterans with championship résumés. Ensemble casts do just fine in the regular season, but historically in the NBA the serious, serious contenders turn to a virtuoso come springtime.
Steadily, Derrick Rose is becoming that, a player who is as likely to win a game for his team as any other player in the league.
"Come the playoffs, it's the heavyweights who usually win the big, big games," Bulls guard Kyle Korver said. "If you want to win, you have to have at least one guy who can take those big shots, make the huge plays. And we do."
On a night when LeBron James missed his second straight game with a sprained ankle, he wasn't missed, not in Chicago, not in the United Center, where two kids from the city's South Side dueled as though so much more was at stake than a regular-season W. Rose scored 34 points, Dwyane Wade 33. Wade kept firing in 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to bring his team all the way back from 14 points down; Rose hit jumpers and got himself to the foul line, where he sank all eight of his free throws.
Rose went one-on-three to push the Bulls' lead to 92-87.
Wade fired in a 3-pointer to cut it to 92-90.
Rose spun Mario Chalmers around like a Frisbee on his index finger to complete the three-point play that made it 95-90.
Wade threw in a pull-up 3-pointer in front of Luol Deng for 95-92, then after a Rose mistake -- seemingly, it was his only one of the night -- another 3-pointer for 96-95.
The only time Rose needed help all night was with 25.5 seconds left in the game, when Korver sank a loose-ball 3-pointer to essentially win the game. Korver has been around the NBA long enough to know what's possible when he's running around with one of the few players in the league who can claim a game by himself, even when Wade is on the floor and feeling it the way he was Saturday night. Wade, you see, had to have wanted this one pretty badly. His running mate LeBron was hurt, but he was playing back at home in Chicago and for the first time being booed passionately as though he was a traitor, which many here now consider him after that brief dalliance that left folks with the impression he just might shock everybody and take his talents from South Beach to Lake Michigan.
Chicagoans captivated by basketball more than celebrity always preferred Dwyane Wade to LeBron James. Although Cleveland and New York obsessed over LeBron, if the Bulls could have scored just one of the mega free agents of the summer of 2010, Chicago would have preferred Wade let's say to the tune of Wade 80 percent, LeBron 20 percent. No other city in the NBA would have felt that way. LeBron's turning down the Bulls elicited a civic shrug; Wade's turning down the Bulls cut to the bone, which was almost certainly why some cheered when he lay on the floor early in the game.
Wade, no matter what uniform he wears, belongs to Chicago. There were plenty of Wade-Rose backcourt fantasies for a week or so. Yes, they are similar players, similarly skilled, similarly acrobatic, similarly reliable, similarly maniacally driven. Yes, they could have played together, like Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe -- exactly like that.
Rose began admiring Wade when Wade showed up at Marquette, as a swingman, more forward than guard. And Rose was stunned as he watched Wade go into the backcourt in the NBA, first as a shooter, then a point guard of sorts, then back to shooting guard. They had never dueled on any playground on the South Side because Rose doesn't play pickup basketball during the summer. He works on his game plenty, but he just doesn't play pickup games.
Wade, he recalled afterward, saw Rose play as an eighth-grader.
"He probably doesn't remember, doesn't even know I saw him," Wade said. "I knew then he was going to be really good. I told guys, 'This Rose kid wow. ' But I didn't know he'd become what he is now."
There was a chance they could have played together in Miami had the Bulls done the unforgivably stupid thing and drafted Michael Beasley ahead of Rose three years ago. And there was presumably, if Wade was ever truly tempted during his flirtation with the Bulls, a chance this past summer. But that's all by the boards now, part of the NBA's considerable "what-if" legend. What we've got now is duels, the two of them going at each other for a few more seasons, even though Wade is six years older.
Korver thought he knew how fearless Rose was last season and the season before that when he played against the Bulls. "I didn't know," Korver said, "how mentally tough he is until I got here. He wants those shots. He relishes those final moments. He doesn't shy away from anybody in any situation Are nights like this important? Absolutely, they're practice for the big ones."
As hot as Miami has been the past six weeks, the Bulls trail the Heat by two games in the Eastern Conference standings. The Bulls are 27-13. Miami is 30-12. Chicago has beaten the Lakers, Celtics and now Miami in huge statement games at home. Don't tell me it doesn't count because LeBron didn't play. OK, Joakim Noah isn't LeBron, but Noah is the Bulls' second-most important player. He's not their second-best player (Carlos Boozer is), but he anchors the defense, he's the best passing center in the league. If LeBron is being mentioned as a serious MVP candidate, Rose should be as well.
If we voted based on a half-season, I'd now vote for Rose, narrowly, over Amare Stoudemire. The tiebreaker for me is that Stoudemire has at the very least played with his entire complement of teammates most of this season. Rose played without Boozer for the first month and has played without Noah for the past month. Rose has been so scary good that during the past month, teams have taken to simply running traps at him -- Charlotte was the first to do so -- and trying to force him to get rid of the ball early in Chicago possessions. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, while acknowledging that Rose's duel with Wade is important in the greater context of the season, was more impressed with Rose's evolving ability to dissect the junk defenses that teams are throwing at him and that Rose probably played better defense on Wade during a stretch Saturday night than anybody else on the team.
Look, Rose may become a truly great player yet never have the career here that Scottie Pippen did. But with 78 seconds left, the biggest crowd to see a game at the United Center this season responded with the kind of ovation not seen since Michael Jordan's final season in Chicago, 1998. It's impossible to remain reserved about Rose, about the way his game is evolving, about his willingness to accept challenges and then meet them.
There's a long way between winning a January duel with Wade and getting past LeBron and Wade in a seven-game series in May or June. NBA greatness usually comes with a requisite amount of spring disappointment. But Rose, still reticent to engage in much talk about this MVP business, knows that he's the guy the Bulls are looking to lead them. He knew when he had the ball in the fourth quarter Saturday night that it's up to him, not Deng or Boozer, to answer Wade.
"During that time of the game, everybody knows who's going to get the ball," Rose said. "I think it was like four or five minutes left you know who's going to get the ball. And it's about will. What are you going to do to get this win?"
The Bulls are very, very fortunate that Rose now asks that question rhetorically.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.